Presented by Incubation Lab: Covering a Natural Disaster, Part 2

Between September 7th and 8th, Tropical Storm Lee stalled over the Southern Tier of New York and Northern Pennsylvania. Throughout the heavy rainfall and the extensive flooding and damage that followed, WSKG staff determinedly provided coverage of the dangerous events. 

In this Presented by Incubation Lab three-part series, Teresa Peltier, Emerging Media Specialist, and Amy Wielunski, Manager of Membership & Special Events, share how WSKG carried on during and after the event, providing valuable online and on-air information to the community. 

Amy Wielunski, WSKG
Go Big or Go Home: Finding a Way to Help
by by Amy Wielunski, Manager, Membership & Special Events, WSKG

As public media employees, we’re ingrained with the mission of our stations. We’re here to serve our community, but when disaster strikes, it’s sometimes hard to see where your best service can be done.

There are the broadcast essential folks who immediate know what to do and (in most cases) how to do it, and then there are the online/new media folks who immediately spring to action as curators and disseminators of the information that needs to get out to those in need.

But as a fundraiser, it would be easy enough to sit back and phone it in – let the staffers who are specifically related to distributing information to the masses handle the load. Fortunately, at WSKG, we’re not those kinds of people.

Helping a Community in Need
The Flood of 2011 hit the Southern Tier of New York on the eve of our September TV Pledge. Like other PBS Stations, we opt out of the August coordinated weeks and wait until September for pledge, since much of our population works around the school/university schedule. After a series of phone calls, we quickly realized that no one on the development staff, nor in senior management, felt right getting on the air for TV pledge when so many in our community were displaced and so many homes destroyed. So, Friday morning, as our broadcast and new media staff continued slogging away through long hours and loads of information, the development, television and management teams got together to figure out what we could do.

We decided on doing a post-event Flood Relief telethon in partnership with area commercial radio and television stations for affected communities in NY and PA. As a plan came together, WSKG needed to tread carefully on what we could say and when we could say it. In order to interrupt our programming and fundraise for someone other than ourselves, a special FCC Waiver is needed. And until we had that waiver, we couldn't really talk too much about what we were planning to do. But at the same time, things were moving quickly and we knew we'd need a lot of help to make this telethon a success.

Getting the Word Out and the Volunteers In
One of the questions we were seeing asked over and over again via Facebook and Twitter was 'How can I help?' We were anxious to harness the momentum behind that desire to volunteer as we'd need more than 100 volunteers in our studios from 5am to 10pm on the day of the telethon, so as soon as we got the preliminary 'we'll approve your request on Monday' email from the FCC, we went ahead and put the call out to our volunteers.

We have a standard volunteer email list, but we would need many, many more people if we wanted our 20-line phone bank fully staffed for the entire 17-hour effort, so we asked folks to share the volunteer info via social media.

The easiest way to do this at the time was to create a public Facebook note, which was then shared by our official Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as many staffers' personal networks.

We used to help organize this recruitment effort. Using the 'Premium Doodle' free trial, I could request the email addresses of every person who signed up, and once a shift was full, that time-period was no longer selectable. This was an easy and free solution that cut out a lot of the hassle sometimes experienced with volunteer scheduling. (And yes, I'll definitely be using again.) All 100+ volunteer positions were filled by Monday.

36 Hours to Go:
Things were moving quickly at this point, with about a day and a half left until we kicked off the drive and we were finally able to meet with Teresa and her online staff (one other person) to talk about what we'd need.

Since we decided not to take donations online (our integrated online donation form/database system wasn't suited to this and would complicate things more, so we stuck with phone-in only), we were mostly thinking about the graphics we'd need and how to ensure that the phone number was as prominent as possible. Somehow, it wasn't until a couple nights before that I realized a micro-site was really necessary so that all the stations involved could have easy access to the information.

We wanted something we could host outside of our own website, something that could stand on its own, but also have the option to offer an easy embed code for our station partners to use on their sites. We wanted some basic information up there (the phone number, our station partners, etc.), and settled on The Local Broadcasters Flood Relief 2011 website. We integrated a Tumblr page for pertinent emergency updates and a dynamic tracker (custom built in javascript using AJAX). The site updated with the amount of money raised, as well as information about each guest that was joining the telethon at any given time.

Ideally, we would have had several weeks to put together that website, but given the nature of the crisis situation, our teams worked together to publish a website that served our needs, and looked good doing so, in about 24 hours.

The Telethon and Beyond: 
In addition to being a fundraiser, the telethon served as a source for critical information needed during this crisis. The day included interviews with more than 40 guests including representatives from the United Way, FDNY, County Health Departments, the Humane Society, FEMA, and the Mental Health Association, in addition to several state and local elected officials.

This fundraiser was a great example of the potential that exists in collaborating with our commercial broadcast counterparts. WSKG was the driving force behind the fundraiser, but its success was due to the teamwork of our colleagues throughout the area, many of whom simulcast the telethon on their commercial stations throughout the evening.

All in all, we raised more than $250,000 for flood relief, all of which was given to the United Way. Now, more than a month later, we’re still receiving positive feedback on the work we did.

Area residents who had never heard of us before joined us as volunteers, and thanks to their positive experience, they will be back to work with us again for our own fundraising activities.

Members of the WSKG audience were moved by the work they saw their station perform and were able to say, with an even greater sense of pride, that their support is what makes the station and all we do possible.

Through our work on the telethon, WSKG was able to increase our visibility in the community, doing so while doing what we do best – serving our community as a trusted and reliable resource for important information.

The Presented by Incubation Lab Blog Series tackles the digital media topics that matter to stations, while highlighting and celebrating the online efforts of stations. These regular profiles of products, people and trends can provide you with inspiration and potential collaborators for your own projects.

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